If you’re serious about tracking your fitness progress, or looking to reach certain milestones, you’ll need some guidance through the process. Going it alone, without help from a qualified expert, is a recipe for disaster.
The coterie of trainers, coaches and doctors surrounding major sports leagues keep their clients in top-level shape by paying close attention to measurements, performance statistics, and biometrics that are often overlooked. Step into a high-performance training center like Indianapolis Fitness and Sports Training (IFAST), where top-level athletes from every major sport work out alongside passionate non-pros who are either highly motivated or very well-financed.
Inside the facility, you’ll see owner Mike Robertson, M.S., C.S.C.S., and his staff of strength coaches using cutting-edge tools—and a few old-school tricks—to get data on what really matters. Which, Robertson explains, does not include the things people often obsess over, like how much weight you can bench press.
“Your one-rep max on any lift can change by 18 percent high or low on any given day,” Robertson says. “So, if you think about it, a guy who could squat 400 pounds might be able to hit anywhere between 320 and about 480, depending on the day.”
Instead, high performance coaches look at other, often more subtle, indicators of an athlete’s physical state. Armed with that information, trainer and trainee both know when they’re best suited to push for more gains—and when they should dial back a session and focus on recovery.
Here are four ways coaches evaluate an athlete’s state of physical readiness. Try one of them to assess your own performance, and you too will get a better understanding of when your body is telling you to rein in your workout—and when you can let it rip.
Heart Rate Variability (HRV)
Any regular exerciser has heard the old (and not especially accurate) “220 minus your age” formula for calculating your max heart rate. But if that’s all you’ve ever done with heart rate training, you’ve only scratched the surface of what this all-important metric can tell you. (And by the way, use this much-more-precise calculator to determine your real heart rate max.)
Far more than just a simple indicator of workout intensity, the rate of your pulse—and the changes in the time interval between each heartbeat, known as heart rate variability (HRV)—can show whether or not you’re overtrained, indicate if you need more rest, and even predict the onset of disease.
Here’s a quick overview: When your body is functioning normally, your pulse should vary quite a bit—speeding up when you exercise, then slowing down when you return to rest. When you are overtrained, sick or stressed out, that variability shrinks. Instead, your ticker constantly ticks away at a working rate, even when you’re not doing anything.
“If someone has a target heart rate for their fitness, age and body type, and they’re constantly at the higher end of that range, you can infer that maybe they’re not recovering, and that maybe they need more time off, more rest and more sleep.” says Ian MacIntyre, a sports specialist chiropractor based in Toronto. While HRV monitoring may sound complicated, there are several HRV systems available to consumers that make it user friendly.
While an athlete’s HRV is one of the more complicated ways coaches and athletes can assess recovery and readiness, the test for determining ground contact time is elegantly simple. In it, you simply jump up and down a few times in a row.
“I like a four-jump test,” Robertson says. “What you find is that the vertical height doesn't change on a day-to-day basis, but what does change is how a person creates those forces. I can see if they are springy and elastic, or if they’re sluggish, slow and muscling their jumps.”
While a trained eye can spot the difference, Robertson doesn’t rely on visuals alone. A key element is performing the test on a jump mat, which measures average height and, more importantly, average ground contact time (the amount of time the athlete spends on the ground between jumps) for those jumps. A shorter time indicates the athlete is springy and explosive. Longer times show the athlete is having to recruit more muscle on each jump.
“If all of the sudden their ground contact times are much longer, that tells me they're probably more fatigued,” Robertson says.
Let’s say you hate jumping. Well, good news. There’s another technique you can employ to gauge how fresh and ready you are to train. And it lets you use your favorite exercise to do so.
The method is called velocity-based training (VBT). Over the last several years, it’s been moving to the forefront as an innovative way to determine load for strength training. In it, you perform a lift such as the bench press or squat with a speed-tracking tool attached to the bar. (Robertson’s facility uses an enterprise system called GymAware. An option for individual exercisers is called the PUSH Band, and is priced at $289.) The tracker sends data to an app that shows how quickly you’re moving the bar, which can indicate how well your muscles are performing.
“We’ll work [a client] through three or four sub-maximal efforts [read: using resistance that’s well below the heaviest weight they can lift], seeing how fast they move the bar at 95 pounds, 115 pounds, 135—whatever those weights may be,” Robertson says. “We get several data points to basically create the client’s own force-velocity curve.
“Then we repeat the test every day they come in, and compare it back to their previous training. We can see on a day-to-day basis how the person is doing compared to their baseline. And we can tell if they’re neutrally fatigued and or if they look really fast and explosive.”
This one’s a little bit old school—but it’s more indicative of a person’s physical state than you’d expect. In fact, studies have found that a weaker grip is associated with an increased mortality rate in both men and women. So Robertson says that testing yourself with a hand grip dynamometer is a quick and easy way to tell if you’re ready to get after it in your workout.
“It sounds pretty basic and simple, but there’s actually a fair amount of data that shows it’s a pretty good indicator of how ready is somebody is to train, or how fatigued they might be,” Robertson says.
Which Test Should You Do?
So which one of these tests is right for you? Robertson says the answer is: It’s the one you’ll actually do, and do consistently. That’s the factor he uses in assessing which test will be right for his pro athlete clients.
“Frankly, a big part of it is just getting them to do it every training day,” Robertson says. “I have to find things that they’re okay with, that they’re willing to do every workout so that we can get consistent numbers and consistent tracking.”
The takeaway: test the tests to see which you like best. When you find that one, stick with it—and you’ll train a whole lot smarter.